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Why do we provide affirmative action for athletes? | Opinion

The recent Harvard case got me thinking about former Penn star and coach Jerome Allen.

Penn Head Coach Jerome Allen questions a call during the first half against La Salle on Wednesday, January 12, 2011.
Penn Head Coach Jerome Allen questions a call during the first half against La Salle on Wednesday, January 12, 2011.Read moreYONG KING / Staff photographer

I love Penn basketball. And my all-time favorite player is Jerome Allen, the silky-smooth guard on three championship teams in the 1990s. Allen was less successful as Penn's head coach, failing to win an Ivy title during his six seasons at the helm. But I still enjoyed watching him strut the sidelines in his tailored suits, as fit and trim as he was when he directed traffic on the court.

So I was saddened to read that Allen pleaded guilty last month to accepting an $18,000 bribe from Florida businessman Philip Esformes, who was trying to get his son into Penn. It didn't help that Esformes has also been indicted in a $1 billion health-care fraud case, or that he flew Allen to Miami on a private jet.

To his credit, Allen took full responsibility for his misdeeds. "I failed on many levels," said Allen, who placed Esformes' son on a list of recruited athletes that receive special consideration for admission. "I did not live up to the high standards I set for myself or were expected of me in the position that I held."

But I've got a different question: Why do we provide affirmative action for athletes, who lower the high standards of our elite colleges?

When I say "affirmative action," you probably think of procedures that give underrepresented racial minorities an advantage in the college admissions sweepstakes. But there are at least three other forms of affirmative action, and they all benefit white people.

The first is for "legacies," the mostly white kids whose parents went to the same institution. The next is geographic preference, which favors applicants from atypical — and heavily white — locales: Your chances are a lot better if you come from Wyoming than from Washington.

But neither form of affirmative action provides as big a boost as the one given to recruited athletes, who are mostly white as well. True, minorities are heavily represented in high-profile sports such as football and basketball. But most of the other teams — think tennis, hockey, or sailing — are dominated by whites, whose families can more commonly afford the expensive training and facilities that these sports require.

And then we make it easier for them to get in. In a 2002 study of 30 selective colleges, James Schulman and former Princeton president William Bowen found that athletes received a 48 percent boost in admissions, compared with 25 percent for legacies and just 18 percent for minorities.

That's also been an important takeaway from the Harvard affirmative action lawsuit, which wrapped up last week. The case focused upon whether the university discriminated against Asian American applicants, who on the average had higher academic qualifications and a lower rate of admission than other racial groups.

But if you're an athlete, Harvard's data showed, you simply don't need the same academic chops as everyone else. The university ranks applicants' academic achievements on a scale of one to six, and athletes who received a four were accepted at a 70 percent rate. Among the rest of the applicants, students who got a four had an admissions rate of 0.076 percent — nearly 1,000 times lower. Meanwhile, 83 percent of athletes who got the top academic rating also got in; among nonathletes, the rate was only 16 percent.

How can we justify giving affirmative action to white people who excel in a sport? I can accept the boost if it goes to a minority kid, which will help enhance the diversity that our colleges — and our country — really need. But when it's mostly benefiting wealthy whites? Don't they already, um, run the country?

A few years ago, a visitor from China asked me if Penn would sometimes accept an applicant because he could run, throw, or kick well. Yes, I sheepishly replied, it's true. "That's good for China, because we are your competitors," he said. "But it's bad for America."

And it's bad for Penn, too. The son of the guy who bribed Jerome Allen got in here, but he didn't make the basketball team. Perhaps he would have been admitted anyway, even without sports. I just don't see why he deserved a leg up because of them.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author (with Emily Robertson) of "The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools" (University of Chicago Press).